diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 15, 2017

As this blog has frequently noted, many of the Next Train Indicators on the London Underground aren't all they're cracked up to be. So it's great to be able to confirm that dozens of them are about to improve, specifically on the sub-surface lines where customer information has often been very limited.

It's all part of the 4 Lines Modernisation programme, a long-term long-delayed project to update signalling and thereby run more trains. A new system of Automatic Train Control is being introduced, and due to go live next year, which will mean far more accurate data can be shared regarding where trains are and when. As a precursor to this, existing Trackernet data is being fed to newly-reprogrammed Next Train Indicators, so that passengers are already seeing benefits before ATC finally kicks in.

The first tranche of stations, where displays have already been added or upgraded, is as follows:
Hammersmith & City: Paddington, Royal Oak, Westbourne Park, Ladbroke Grove, Latimer Road, Wood Lane, Shepherd's Bush Market, Goldhawk Road
Metropolitan: Harrow on the Hill
The second tranche, due for completion by April 2019, is rather larger:
District: Ealing Broadway, Chiswick Park, Barons Court, West Kensington, Putney Bridge, Parsons Green, Fulham Broadway, West Brompton, Paddington, Bayswater, Notting Hill Gate, Earl's Court, Gloucester Road, South Kensington, Westminster, Embankment, Temple, Blackfriars, Mansion House, Tower Hill, Aldgate East, Stepney Green, Mile End, Bow Road, Bromley-by-Bow, West Ham, Plaistow, Upton Park, Upney, Becontree, Dagenham Heathway, Elm Park, Hornchurch, Upminster
Metropolitan: Aldgate, Farringdon, King's Cross St Pancras, Great Portland Street, Rayners Lane, Croxley, Chorleywood, Chalfont & Latimer, Amersham, Chesham
That's an impressively long list... although look closely and several intermediate stations have been omitted, for example Stamford Brook, High Street Kensington, St James's Park, East Ham and Dagenham East. Watford isn't included either, whatever that may prove. I'm particularly chuffed to see Bow Road on the list, so hopefully my local station's ineffective Next Train Indicators will be able to display meaningful information within the next two years.

What's more the first two stations in this second tranche are already up and running, namely Aldgate East and Plaistow, so I've been along to take a look. This is Aldgate East.

This level of information might look normal to those of you who use the deep tube lines, but here at Aldgate East it's an amazing improvement. Previously all this Next Train Indicator could display was the destination of the next train, assuming it was less than a minute away, with no indication of when anything else would arrive. Now passengers can see the destinations of the next three trains, not just one, with up to eight minutes warning of their arrival. For those stood waiting for a Hammersmith & City line train, not just yet another District, this is transformational.

And then I went to Plaistow.

Again I was impressed. Both Next Train Indicators now list three trains rather than one, plus they give considerably more advance warning than before. Previously the westbound NTI only flashed up when a train was three minutes away, but that interval has now been extended to fourteen minutes, in both directions, which is unheard of. My camera couldn't capture the flickering display, sorry, but I can assure you all three lines of information are there. I should also confirm that these are precisely the same electronic boxes as before, they're just receiving better information, which shows the power of good data and a bit of decent coding.

Well done TfL, I thought, well done. And then I stood around and waited for a while, and then I changed my mind.

It soon became apparent that what Plaistow's Next Train Indicators were promising wasn't necessarily what was happening. Times jumped about. Intervals lengthened. Destinations chopped and changed. Trains failed to appear. Indeed by the time I'd been waiting quarter of an hour for the next Hammersmith & City line train, I'd learned not to trust the new information at all.

Let's start on the eastbound. Eastbound trains at Plaistow are generally going either to Upminster or to Barking, sometimes Dagenham East, and every train has been on this line since seven stations previously, so the system really ought to know what's on its way. It clearly doesn't.

When I started watching, the next three trains were all due to be going to Upminster, and were 1 min, 9 mins and 11 mins away respectively. Over the next seven minutes the first train on the board remained 1 minute away, and the others slowly ticked down, but no train ever arrived. During this period the destination of the follow-up trains sometimes changed to Barking or to Check front of train, before reverting to show Upminster again. But all this time the first train only ever said Upminster 1 min... and when it eventually arrived it was going to Barking.

As for the westbound indicator, that was differently unimpressive. This time there are usually four possible destinations, namely Ealing Broadway, Richmond and Wimbledon on the District, and Hammersmith on the H&C. The NTI seemed to get the destination of the next train correct, but those following shifted and changed as if jockeying for position, and didn't necessarily bear any resemblance to what eventually turned up.

When I started watching, the next three trains were supposedly to Richmond 1 min, Ealing Broadway 9 mins and Ealing Broadway 10 mins. The Richmond train duly turned up, correctly, and one of the Ealing Broadway trains behind converted magically to a Richmond. Up flashed a message - Next train to Richmond 13 mins - when only a few seconds previously the display had been suggesting 10. The second train on the list then became Check front of train, then Check front of train switched to third place, then vanished to be replaced by another Ealing Broadway. By this point I was really quite confused.

There is a genuine issue with predicting westbound trains on this line, which is trains filtering onto the tracks at Barking. It's not always possible to know where in the sequences these H&C and District line trains will be slotted, so any train further back than Barking is quite likely to be leapfrogged before it arrives. At Plaistow this means details of any train more than eight minutes distant could well be inaccurate, so the new 14 minute envelope isn't necessarily helpful.

I watched as the next Hammersmith & City train supposedly edged closer... 8 mins, 7 mins, 5 mins ... at which point it changed briefly to a Check front of train. Eventually the countdown reached zero, but no train was in sight, despite the display suggesting an H&C was imminent. Baffled passengers spent at least two minutes wondering where the zero-minute train had got to - which isn't something they'd have wondered here previously - before it eventually rumbled into the platform. As a postscript, thanks to yesterday's terrible fire at Ladbroke Grove the H&C was in fact only going as far as Edgware Road, but the display still said Hammersmith because the number of programmed destinations remains limited.

In summary, despite containing much more information than before, Plaistow's Next Train Indicators are displaying misleading and inaccurate data. Times jump about. Intervals lengthen. Destinations chop and change. Trains fail to appear. It seems the only truth passengers can definitely rely on is the destination of the next westbound train... which is the full extent of the information the unimproved display used to show before.

Come 2019, when the new 4LM ATC system is powering several dozen reprogrammed displays, let's hope these inadequacies will have disappeared. In the meantime the upgraded displays are still relying on a truly ancient and unreliable feed, so aren't yet to be trusted. If the Next Train Indicators at your local station suddenly spring into action with fresh levels of information, yes, rejoice, but be prepared to take what they have to say with an enormous pinch of salt.

9pm update: Comment from 'Someone working on this project'

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